Neima (right) with Liberian Red Cross health educators.
"If we leave, who will do the work? That is my courage. My country needs me."
From a small office at the Liberian Red Cross Society, a group of resourceful and pragmatic women plan, direct and negotiate a response to the Ebola outbreak in their country. Public health specialists Neima Candy and Roselyn Nugba-Ballah are two of these women.
Both joined the operation last July, when the Red Cross scaled up its operations to respond to the increasing number of Ebola cases.
Neima is the national Ebola coordinator, bringing a solid working knowledge of the country's health infrastructure, having worked with the Ministry of Health to restore it following Liberia's wars. Still vibrant from finishing her Master's degree, she says: "I felt like I could bring that drive to this response and have a real impact."
Roselyn supervises the safe and dignified burial teams, one of the most challenging pillars of the Ebola operation. "When I took on this role, there was so much to do. There were literally bodies in the street. I had to put up a warehouse, manage a fleet of vehicles, recruit, train and supervise our teams. And I had the really stressful task of taking multiple calls every day from the community to come and pick up bodies."
Roselyn says Ebola's impact on women is why she had to get involved. "The role of women in the outbreak is very cardinal and traumatic. We are caregivers. Therefore we have to face the traumatic scene of losing our loved ones and risk our lives to care for them."
Women are also breadwinners and quarantine restrictions have had huge economic impacts.
Women entrepreneurs have been hit hard. "Lofa county, in the northwest, was one of the worst affected by Ebola. Market women travel there to buy their goods to sell," Neima reports. "But when the county borders were closed to stop the spread of Ebola, there was no way women from Monrovia could cross the border to buy their goods. It hurt their income, and created a shortage of food."
The outbreak has cost Neima and Roselyn personally. Neima lost a fellow nurse, a friend. "My friend had looked after a patient who she suspected had Ebola. She kept telling us she wasn't sure about that patient and she wasn't in her full personal protective equipment. Then, about three or four days later, she started having a loss of appetite. Ebola symptoms followed. Then she died. I had lost other colleagues and mentors, but none as young and healthy as she was. It was so hard to believe. It really broke me down."
Roselyn at work with members of the safe and dignified burials team.
For Roselyn, managing the unprecedented demands of her role and still finding the time to be a mother and a wife is a challenge. "I don't spend much time with my family because every day is work. We're through the worst of it, but I still go home tired."
Both women have found positives within these challenges, both for them and for Liberia. In the emotionally-charged arena of safe and dignified burials, Roselyn says, "Importantly, I have learned how to build good personal relationships under real pressure, working and communicating with people from really different backgrounds and communities. I'll take that with me into the future."
Neima says, "For Liberia, it has been an eye opener. To see our weaknesses so starkly, we can build on this crisis with the new knowledge and systems we've had to develop. If we really push, we can build our strength in this area."
Today, Liberia is down to its last Ebola case. How have these women persevered in this difficult work, for so many months? Neima sums it up perfectly: "Some days I felt like I should just stop this work and go to another country like Ghana. Stay there until Ebola is finished. But we only have a handful of public health practitioners in Liberia, and limited capacity. After 10 years of war, our resources and health infrastructure were completely shattered.
"So if we leave, who will do the work? That is my courage. My country needs me."
Story: Anita Dullard/IFRC. Photos: Victor Lacken/IFRC; Stephen Ryan/IFRC.